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The point of Christopher Nolan's "Inception": did the spinning top fall?

Author of the article: Tatiana Zhakova
Journalist, linguist, teacher of storytelling with 10 years of experience
In 2015 she created and promoted her project about Nizhny Novgorod,, after which she created a course called "Storytelling: How to Tell Your Story" based on it. Over 4,000 students have taken the course.

A linguist by education, she quickly masters new areas. Now she is actively studying screenwriting and storytelling in movies/serials, and writes about it in her project's blog.
One of the most spectacular, intense and intricate films of world cinema is Christopher Nolan's Inception.

You can revisit it thousands of times because of the beautiful visual effects, the intense storyline and the fast pace of the narration. And each time you find a new and new meaning for yourself, you answer yourself questions that have remained without clear understanding before.
"Inception", in its original title, was directed by Christopher Nolan in 2010. Although it is known that the idea itself has been nurtured by the director for more than a year - back in the 2000s he started working on the script and turning the idea of a dream heist film into something more serious and not superficial.

Remember that time: the reign of "The Matrix" and the idea that our world was unreal. But Inception doesn't just exploit this trend like many of the films that came out then, it creates its own world with its own terminology, artifacts and rules, in which different people can have the same dream.

The main role in the film is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a truly versatile and talented actor, whose every role is unlike the previous one. We also see Marion Cottillard, an unbelievably beautiful woman who totally fits the "femme fatale" archetype - it seems she had a similar role in "Midnight in Paris", and Cillian Murphy - the future star of "Acute Visors", Eliot Page - the future heroine of "Umbrella Academy", Joseph Gordon-Levitt, already known at that time from the film "500 Days of Summer" and Tom Hardy. The cast is truly stellar.
Dominic Cobb engages in some very interesting heists - they take place in shared dreams. One of his targets, Saito, offers an even more difficult job: to implant a thought into a man's subconscious through a dream, pulling off an impossible "dream-in-a-sleep" mission. In return, he offers to help Cobb - to clear him of suspicion of killing his own wife, which makes it impossible for Cobb to return home to his children.

Dominic agrees and assembles a team to carry out the idea. But everything is not so simple, because in his subconscious lives Mol - the former wife, which Cobb can not let go, and which actively interferes in all affairs of the team.

In the end, they accomplish the task by going through three levels of sleep in different scenarios.

Let's look at the techniques of storytelling used by the filmmakers,

and what you need to pay attention to in the course of the narrative
  • In fact, it would be fair to translate the film's title as "Inception," because that's exactly what Cobb asks Saito to do. Inception is the word for introduction. Thus, a term from the dialogue of the characters is brought into the title of the film. This technique is called "The drop".
  • The reality created in the film is almost indistinguishable from ours, except that different people can have the same dream at the same time. The whole concept is very reminiscent of conscious dreaming, another trend of the 2010s. Also, dreaming while dreaming is reminiscent of the concept of a matryoshka doll.
  • Mol is the trope of the Femme fatal, which was particularly popular in the 40s and 50s and in films of the noir genre. This is when everything around is so bad that it seems hopeless, and the femme fatale embodies the "neurosis of the protagonist". Here she is needed to make the film more dramatic.

A trope is an artistic device in storytelling. It is a collection of several factors that form a character/phenomenon. And that character is something we encounter in different movies/books/series.

Our brain identifies that there is something in common, but unless we know for sure the name of the trope and its characteristics, we can hardly explain it

  • The leitmotif of Inception is Edith Piaf's Non, je ne regrette rien. It is to its accompaniment that the ejection from one level of sleep to another should take place.

  • Ariadne is the heroine of ancient Greek myths who helped Theseus get out of the Minotaur's labyrinth with the help of a magic thread. That is the name of the girl architect who is supposed to build the labyrinth of dreams. Obviously, the choice of the name is not accidental.

  • And the name "Cobb" means sleep in Sanskrit, Hindi and several other languages.

Very often the Cobb team is associated with different concepts. For example, that they all represent a side of the same personality - Yusuf represents rationality, Arthur represents resourcefulness, Ariadne represents creativity, Saito represents wisdom, Ames represents adaptability, Cobb represents leadership qualities, and Mol represents the vulnerable sides of the person.

Or that the whole process of "embedding" is actually very similar to the process of filmmaking:
Cobb is the director given the assignment to make the film. Ariadne is the cameraman, and the rest of the crew are the crew members. Saito is a wealthy producer, and he directs the process.
One of the central ideas of the film is that the process is as important as the result, in any endeavor.
These are arc words, repeated throughout the film, leading up to the climax and adding to the associations with the plot.

  • "You're waiting for a train..."
  • "Non, rien de rien / Non, je ne regrette rien..."
  • "... an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone."
  • "This world is not real."
  • "We can be young men together again."
  • "You said you dreamt that we would grow old together."

Did the spinner fall?

One of the main mysteries of the film is whether the totem spinner falls at the end. If it spins forever, it means that DiCaprio's character is still in a dream; if it falls, it means that he has returned to reality. Before going to the children, Cobb sets the spinner in motion to check it out. And we realize that we might actually initially be in his dream. But without waiting for the result, he turns away from the spinning thing and goes to the children.

So is Cobb in the dream or not?
Christopher Nolan has answered this question many times for fans of the film. And the main thing we have to understand is that the whole point of this puzzle movie is duality.

And it doesn't really matter if Cobb is dreaming or not. It doesn't matter to him, it doesn't matter to us.

What matters is that he is with his children, whom he has longed for, and with whom he can finally spend time.

This raises the next main point of the film - are other levels of our reality, such as dreams, less important than the level on which we live?

Could it be that all levels are equally important?
There is another version - that in fact Cobb's totem was not a spinner, but an engagement ring, which appeared in dreams and disappeared in reality.

But the main indicator of the meaning of the ending is Cobb's father-in-law. To play his role most authentically, the actor asked Nolan which of his scenes - a dream and which reality. And he replied that when the professor in the frame - it is always real, because this character is not in dreams. From which we can conclude that Cobb did, after all, actually meet his children.

The marketing message of the film

But besides all the mysteries and symbols of storytelling, this film also has a very powerful marketing point.

Namely: an idea, put through the subconscious in our brain, grows and becomes as intrusive as possible.

After all, that's how propaganda and all social media work now: you see 15 times in Instagram how girls are sailing on yachts, and you gradually form the idea that you also have to take a ride on such a yacht!

This is what we do with storytelling - through the techniques and tricks of storytelling, we plant an idea in someone's head, which we then reinforce with our next messages.

This is what I teach in my course, "Storytelling: How to Tell Your Story.

And the fact that my thoughts coincide with the main idea of the film is what I particularly like about it.